Madame butterfly sings the betel leaf


Janani Ganesan traces the child prodigy who grew up and became the wild Tamil folk singer Chinnaponnu

Jamming Chinnaponnu with Kailash Kher in Coke Studio India
Jamming Chinnaponnu with Kailash Kher in Coke Studio India
Photo: Ravinder Kumar

CHINNAPONNU IS no genius forcing you to a solemn contemplation of music. But as her husband Selvakumar’s percussion beats explode, Chinnaponnu’s voice (in Beyonce’s memorable phrase) gets you bodied, gets you bodied, gets you bodied.

The revelation that is Chinnaponnu hit the non-Tamilian world recently when she appeared in an episode of Coke Studio India. The 38-year-old opened the episode’s performance with an infectious smile and the Tamil folk standard Vethalai (betel leaf ). Paired with musician Kailash Kher, Chinnaponnu did not hit her usual wild tempo but nothing could stop her from being entertaining.

Her appearance in Coke Studio India wasn’t a brilliant opening for the national stage but it was an opening for sure. Neither Kailash Kher nor Chinnaponnu had heard of the other before but ended the evening with a vague sense of fondness. Kher later said, “Her smile is so pyaara. Her nature is like her music — so childlike in its energy and freshness.” Chinnaponnu was more excited to have been introduced to Kher’s two-year-old son — “It is a sign of respect and affection. I was thrilled,” she says.

The rest of the country might toast this opportunity to celebrate folk music (and infantilise it a bit). But to Chinnaponnu, this was just another performance, albeit a comfortably upholstered one, in a 20-year stage career doing around 100-odd shows a year. She flew in and out of Mumbai without having the time to explore the city, hurrying back to a show in Thanjavur.

Chinnaponnu has been a part of the music ‘scene’ in Tamil Nadu for a while. When she sang Nakka Mukka for the film Kadhalil Vizhunthen in 2008, the song went viral. Chinnaponnu’s voice is also responsible for two advertising awards at Cannes and the launch of a national newspaper. She was roped to lend her voice for the promotional campaign of The Times of India’s launch in Chennai. The ad was clever but the state got drunk on her version of dappan koothu — a Tamizh folk music-dance form, with an addictive emphasis on percussion. Today Chinnaponnu is a familiar face on television song-and-dance reality shows. (A la Paula Abdul, Chinnaponnu is the ‘nice judge’ encouraging and friendly to losers and good ‘try-ers’).

THE TIME is 1978. The place, Sivaganga in rural Tamil Nadu. Thirteen-year-old Chinnaponnu is excited to be performing at a local temple festival. The daughter of a nadaswaram player, she had been recently discovered by KA Gunasekaran, a well-known folk music researcher in Tamil Nadu. He heard her singing and hanging out with a well-known folk singer at a church fete. Gunasekaran assumed he had somehow missed this great voice and tracked her down for an interview. A short chase later, he realised that Chinnaponnu was a child and an amateur. She had learnt her repertoire by determinedly chasing her aunt who crooned while working in the fields. Gunasekaran was sure she was destined to be famous and recommended her to stage-show organisers. He was right. At 18, Kollywood would adopt her. At 20, she would travel around Tamil Nadu, often singing compositions by her husband Selvakumar. At 32, her first album recorded under a self-label, sold 5,000 copies. At 37, her latest album, recorded by Pyramid Saimira, sold 30 times more at 1.5 lakh copies.

Right then, at 13, on stage, all decked up in silk pavadaichattai, Chinnaponnu was too absorbed in the carnival to notice the looks of admiration from her 18-year-old percussionist. Later, as she and Selvakumar performed together more often, their relationship grew. When they travelled out of her hometown for shows, she would send him on errands to buy bathing soap and talcum powder — like a perfect setting from the iconic filmmaker Bharathiraja’s movies. Selvakumar was not merely a helpful fellow trouper but Chinnaponnu stayed clueless. “She was adorable when she performed. I fell in love with her voice,” says Selvakumar, sounding as if it has just happened and he was still there, madly in love. In fact, he still is.

At 13, Chinnaponnu had learnt her repertoire by determinedly chasing her aunt who often sang while working in the fields

Performing on stage was her biggest high. She was also delighted to bid goodbye to school forever. She doesn’t regret it even today, but is determined to make her daughter Mohana Pappa’s medical college dreams come true. Her son Arivalagan sings but his Class X homework always comes first.

AT 18, she was engaged to be married to a distant relative. This spurred the otherwise shy Selvakumar to confess his love for her. And then she realised that all along she had been in love with Selvakumar. What followed is a movie plot. Amidst opposition from her parents, away she went with him, to be married in a Thanjavur temple. She got lucky. It could have been a tumultuous relationship given that her celebrity status has raced ahead. But instead they share a rare, mutual enjoyment of her fame and success. Selvakumar was the one who insisted that she record an album. With the help of lyricist Arivumadhi, who had heard her sing when she was 18, they also tried to break into cinema. They had a little success but the bread and butter came from singing at temples, church festivals and village fairs in rural Tamil Nadu. Even after her popularity soared with Nakka Mukka, she continued to go back to the stage. She still does a 100- show roster a year in front of similar audiences. The only difference is that where she once got Rs 10,000 a show, she is now paid Rs 60,000 for one.

In 2008, while Nakka Mukka was still burning the airwaves, her career almost came to an end. Chinnaponnu met with a terrifying car crash in which she suffered head injuries and her driver died. After half-a-month of hospitalisation, she recovered and slowly found her way back, singing on stage with outrageous bandannas covering her injuries. Those years on the road had earned her a whole lot of fans. And Chinnaponnu was back! In 2010, she sang for AR Rahman in Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan. This time, she tried something new — she let her voice take over the rhythm, and the usually happy-go-lucky singer unleashed the haunting, mystique, dark tones of her vocal chords.

To Chinnaponnu, success is having a ‘hit’ album like that of pop-singer Alisha. “I would like to release my own albums that would become famous at a national level. Like that of the pop-singer… um, I can’t remember her name, she sang about India,” she papers over this lapse with a broad grin.

She is now well-anointed in the modern Tamil film industry but her instincts for community are old-fashioned. She introduced Anthony and Selvi, young folk singers, into the movie business. They haven’t hit it big time yet but they are singing in the movies. And that’s because Chinnaponnu understands that sometimes a timely meeting is all that lies between you and immortality. Chinnaponnu, her husband and eight other performers had also once attempted to set up an organisation to promote folk artists. They each shelled out Rs 5 lakh but after limping along for a decade, the group died. The couple hopes to revive it soon.

Chinnaponnu still prefers dusty stage shows with their tangible aftermath of hugging, kissing old ladies and starstruck kids to the recording studios. Unfortunately for most folk singers, the only means to the big time remains the recording studios of Chennai, Mumbai or some other such self- important city.

Janani Ganesan is a Trainee Correspondent with Tehelka


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